Sunday, March 30, 2008

Becoming one of those cranky correspondents to the bourgeois press. Yep, I was moved to write another letter today - this time to the Good Weekend. Really it was a lost cause, for their bread and butter is a lifestyle snobbery that oscillates between cosmopolitanism (eg: knowing about the existence of a Middle Eastern spice mix called baharat) and Rustique Chic (that hateful bourgie philosophy where everything has to be cleverly vintage or repurposed, 'sourced' rather than merely bought, made from scratch, nostalgic for old-school technologies and techniques, and above all, so simple to make! In Rustique Chic you must never admit that something was very difficult or unwieldy).

But I just couldn't bear Terry Durack's retarded list of "20 food experiences you must have before you die". They are:

1. Catching and cooking a fish
2. Drinking Guinness in Dublin
3. Watching the sun set at Mindil Beach Market in Darwin
4. Going on a tapas crawl through San Sebastian, Spain
5. Eating roast goose in Hong Kong
6. Baking a loaf of bread
7. Eating Tetsuya's confit of ocean trout
8. Eating Sachertorte in Vienna
9. Dining in the Eiffel Tower
10. Queuing for the best pizza in Naples (and therefore the world, Durack helpfully explains)
11. Breakfasting in La Boqueria food market in Barcelona
12. Staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn
13. Milking a cow
14. Buying a custard tart in Lisbon
15. Ordering a bellini in Harry's Bar, Venice
16. Hot chocolate and churros in Madrid
17. Cooking a souffle
18. Ordering the pastrami at Carnegie Deli, New York
19. Tucking into the world's best pub lunch, which apparently is in the Hinds Head pub in Berkshire, UK
20. Growing your own tomatoes

My housemate Marty had done two of these (the Vienna cake and the fish-catching). I had done three (the fish-catching, growing the tomatoes and baking the bread). But it wasn't my vast inadequacy that really piqued me - it was the cultural cringe of assuming things are always done best far away from wherever you live. He's like the Rob Sitch character in the Late Show dinner party sketch - "That's nothing compared to [insert exotic experience]. Brilliant! Brilliant!"

Despite acing the DIY Rustique Chic component ("I've seen a cow being milked but I didn't squeeze out the milk myself..." I said forlornly to Marty, who was still gloating at his Vienna-led superiority) I was also angry at that idea that "Nothing beats cooking with something you have grown yourself". I loved the way that Richie Hebden took the piss out of this bourgie attitude in his story about people who eat their own children.

So I wrote the following letter to the Good Weekend. Hopefully it will win Letter Of The Month and I will win a weekend stay for two at a hotel in my own city - a wonderful prize indeed considering that I wouldn't get to travel anywhere and have nobody to share the hotel room with.

Your Food and Wine issue (March 29) cunningly underlined that eating and drinking can easily tip over into bourgeois snobbery. First Terry Durack pronounces that you simply haven't lived unless you've had the time and money to roam the world sampling its goodies and produce basic foodstuffs yourself. Then Huon Hooke brags about the mere $55 per bottle he paid for the 1990 Pol Roger Champagne. Whatever happened to food and wine's more mundane pleasures? Hot tea and Vegemite toast in bed? The spag bol and cleanskin cab sav I cheered myself up with when I lost my job? And that naffest of drinks that never fails to conjure happy summer afternoons with friends - the white wine spritzer?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hollywood dreams. Last night I dreamed I was a famous actress and I was presenting an award at the Oscars. At soundcheck (rehearsal? whatever they call it) we practised taking a mic on a long cord and walking from backstage to the podium. I don't know why the Oscars were organised in this slipshod fashion in my dream. A few times I realised my mic cord was too short and didn't reach the podium, so this had to be adjusted.

A particularly vivid part of this dream was the wings of the stage. I think the same wings have starred in my previous dreams, and they are inspired by the theatre in which my childhood ballet concerts were staged: dark, with various abandoned ropes, switch boxes and other mysterious stage tech stuff strewn about, and velvet curtains at intervals down the stage to conceal the goings-on from the audience.

Anyway, at one point I was bored with the endless tech adjustments, so idly I lifted my mic to my lips and sang, I get up in the morning and I see your face girl..., the opening line to 'Cover Girl' by New Kids On The Block. You're looking so good everything's in place...

Then mysteriously, Donnie Wahlberg appeared on the other side of the stage with another mic, and joined in, Don't you know I would never leave your side girl / Won't you stay here with me, and be my bride? It made sense in the dream that he would just be hanging about, because he is an actor. Let's not interrogate the logic of this any more, because I certainly didn't.

More people began to come on stage now, just random actors and performers and stagehands who were around, and we started to sway in a dance routine that we all magically knew. Don't you know you're my kind, you're just what I like / Girl you're everything, don't you know you're all right / The only girl I've always needed for so long...

And then as the chorus broke out, we broke into the full energetic routine in our Oscar evening clothes and stagehand outfits. It was so fricking sweet. Oh oh-oh, she's my cover girl, oh oh-oh, oh-whoa-oh! BASS! It's all right, oh yeah it's outta sight, lemme say it's all right, AGHGHGHGHHGGHHHH!!!

My Oscar co-presenter, some distinguished male actor of the ilk of Christopher Ecclestone or Ralph Fiennes, was extremely exasperated by this undignified display. (Although now I think of it, Ralph Fiennes knows a thing or two about undignified displays.) He broke it up and with that, the rehearsal was over and I ran backstage because I realised that I wasn't wearing any makeup and my hair wasn't done.

In the dressing room with its globe-ringed mirror, Tash was doing her makeup (as if this were a ballet concert still!) I said, "Tash, can I borrow your makeup? I have to present an Oscar and I didn't even get my hair done!" I rumpled my hair despairingly in the mirror. But then I woke up and so I never found out if my makeup-free Oscar appearance made it into NW.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Private service announcement.The other day I got an email that kind of spooked me: it had the subject line, "People are searching for you on Spokeo". Online social networks recruit users like this: they tell you that people you know are doing something online and that you'll need to sign up to find out what it is. Many people dislike social networking systems for this herd mentality and for what seems like an artificial and cynical replacement of "real" interaction with mouse-clicks and avatars. And as I've noted, I am uncomfortable with the proprietary "walled garden" nature of many of these systems. But I also believe that they can be personally or professionally valuable, and that if judiciously used, you can make the benefits outweigh the pitfalls.

Spokeo, however, is not a social networking system. It's something altogether different - an aggregator or feed reader for social networks. And it is by no means the only one - apparently social network aggregators (aka "lifestreaming") are the new hot startup, and there are at least 20 players in the market. Spokeo has been going since 2006; the current market leader is Friendfeed, which seems the most powerful: it harnesses a vast range of social networks and is searchable, so you can see when people are talking about you! Other players include SocialThing! and Secondbrain. is another one, currently in private beta, that specialises in status updates from Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, Tumblr and Pownce.

Social aggregators are like search engines - you provide a starting point and they bring back lots of information for you. This is different to RSS readers like Google Reader, Bloglines, or whatever one you use, where you add feeds from the information you know is out there and you are then updated on the latest activity on your favourite websites. When you head to the Spokeo website, you get the blurb: "Spokeo finds your friends' blogs and photos that you never knew about, guaranteed." It makes it sound almost like a stalking app!

Here's how it works. It harvests email addresses from your webmail contact list (it supports various webmail systems; presumably when you don't use webmail it prompts you to paste in your address book manually) and then any social network profiles linked to those addresses become entries in your feed, and you get updated every time they update their accounts. Of course, a lot of the time these are old or inactive accounts, because you might have someone's old email address, or they might have lost interest in whatever they signed up for, so it will take a while after signing up for your contacts' real online activities to reveal themselves.

Most people don't think very much about the privacy implications of their email addresses: they're seen as a relatively "safe" item of personal information to give out, because what's the worst that could happen? Spam? Also, many websites that require your email address to sign in don't display it to others, and you could be under the impression that you can sign up to stuff without people being aware of your activities. However, as long as someone has the email address you used to sign up for a social network, Spokeo and similar sites can find you.

The email addresses in my contact book belong to my past and present bosses, co-workers, clients and suppliers, my friends, family members and family friends, and randoms including people who emailed me once about a spare room in my house. I use Gmail, which has some algorithm that saves all email addresses to your address book, even from group emails which include people I don't know. So now I have access to information about people I don't necessarily know or like, and they probably have access to all mine as well.

Spokeo is not an information-sharing meta-network. No user has access to any other user's feeds or contacts, and the subjects of the feeds do not know who is tracking them. That's why they send out those courtesy emails: they are a heads-up that the public information you have posted online is being accessed by others using their system. The emails are not really trying to recruit you to Spokeo, and you can't discover who has you in their feeds by signing up to Spokeo. If you are worried about strangers using it to find your stuff, you will need to go to each of your social networks and change your privacy settings.

Here are the applications that I've noticed Spokeo can access. (As I said above, Friendfeed is more powerful and can access Facebook, Twitter and even your RSS feeds on Google Reader.)

Windows Live Spaces

Personally I think they're pretty small biscuits in terms of potentially incriminating information (some people - not me, clearly - might be embarrassed about others knowing they have Pandora stations such as "Awesome 70s Power Rock Radio" and once bookmarked a Bon Jovi track). Note also that it only accesses them if your profile is public; if it's private or friends-only, a Spokeo user who is one of your friends on that application can view the content, but no other Spokeo users can.

Rather than panicking and deleting all our social network memberships, we need to think about the ways we negotiate private and public online. People who argue that "information wants to be free", like Social Computing magazine's Dion Hinchcliffe, seem to me to be ignoring the basic fact that it creeps people the fuck out to know that their online activities, many of them personal, are being broadcast to people they know. This is the same anxiety that made Facebook Beacon such a dismal failure (although Beacon was another kind of bogeyman, too - people have a real knee-jerk dislike of being marketed to).

I've written before about the willingness with which many people waive their right to privacy by publishing so many of their activities online. But there also seems to be an unacknowledged private public sphere, in which you realise on one level that your online activities are visible, but you assume nobody will bother to seek them out, or that nobody will link them all to each other to form a more complete picture of you. Social aggregators puncture this illusion of public privacy.

Ultimately, if this bothers you, you should create a private email address that you never actually use for correspondence, and use this for all your online social networking. Alternatively, you should make sure that you are happy with the complete publicity of all information you put online about yourself. Or you can turn to the growing online reputation management industry.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Half-baked blog post ideas. Lately I have found myself busy on every night of the week, so that I never have time to sit down and blog indulgently about the things that take my fancy. Here is a shortened version of some of my hare-brained schemes:

Cooking With Kottke. I noticed that Jason Kottke was Twittering: "A beer bottle cap is a really fantastic impromptu parmesan cheese grater. No kidding!" (Yes, I am following Kottke on Twitter. Geek sigh.) But how cool, albeit in an extremely nerdy way, would it be to have some webcast "Cooking With Kottke" show. Because let's face it, nerds cream themselves over everything that dude does. And Coolio has his own cooking show, spearheading the trend for celebrities whose names have a c-sound to demand their own shows.

Also, that parmesan hint is pretty cool. I have always loved that Women's Weekly Home Hints page where they invent insane new uses for common household products. If they could nerd that shit up, I reckon people would really go for it.

Child Chefs, aka Kids Menu I already discussed this on Facebook, but basically this would be a catering company or restaurant in which children (or midgets masquerading as children) prepare the food. And they would prepare the kind of foods that kids can cook, such as spaghetti bolognese or boiled eggs with soldiers. The logistics of this would probably be prohibitive, though.

I have been thinking about this some more and I think even more awesome would be a restaurant that serves only the sort of foods found on kids' menus in restaurants. You know, the ones that have the yummy foods but as an adult you are not allowed to order from there? This restaurant would serve the abovementioned dishes, and also: chicken nuggets, party pies, fairy bread... actually, come to think of it, it should just be a Kids' Birthday Party themed restaurant. Hipsters would love to hold their birthday parties there, because nothing is so piquant to hipsters as the combination of childhood nostalgia and teenage debauchery. Agghhhh, I hate myself for even coming up with this idea.

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